Monthly Archives: August 2011

Fall Ritual Reboot

It’s the last steamy Friday morning in August and I am perusing the local newspaper’s Prep Football Preview 2011.  Staged photos reflecting the roles of each position dot the insert.  Carefree, helmet less half backs run free or are suspended in mid-air as they dive toward the end zone.  Quarterbacks are poised to throw, projecting leadership with determined gazes. Serious looking offensive linemen are grouped together in crouched stances, models of team play and submission of the individual for the greater good.  Screaming linebackers charge the camera like enraged grizzlies.

In a few weeks, when the daytime temperature dips into the 60’s and a cool nip grips the evening breeze, my wife and I will trek to our favorite high school’s Friday night football game.  We’ll pay the $3 admission and crunch across the cinder track as the home team warms up in the end zone, blue and gold uniforms aglow beneath bright lights.

Pep band blasting, we’ll shout our order to parents working concessions: “Two rib eye sandwiches, two Cokes, two popcorn, please.” We’ll spread grilled onions and cold mustard on the sizzling steaks, then swing a leg over the bench of a wooden picnic table and strike up a conversation with whomever is across from us.

Ritual honored, another change of seasons will be official for me.

From a sport perspective, I associate hockey and basketball with winter. In the spring, images of baseball players stretching at spring training, golf at a flower-filled Augusta National or engines revving at the Indy 500, are conjured.  The summer, more golf, more baseball, the beach or the pool, along with lots of grilling.

But fall is football.  High school, college, pro.  It dominates coverage, the other sports playing second fiddle until the high school champs are crowned in November, the bowl games played during the holidays, and the Super Bowl capping it all off.  Football is America’s game.

Perhaps no book captures the preeminence the game has achieved than Buzz Bissingers’s Friday Night Lights.  For those unfamiliar, Bissinger followed the 1988 Odessa Permian high school football season from training camp to elimination in the state semifinals.  He captured the emotional weight high school football carried in small town Texas, the success or failure of the local team a point of community pride or disappointment. But the book speaks to more than just high school football in Texas.  It is evidence of America’s love affair with football and our need for community.

Now I will concede that football in 2011, even in Texas, may not garner the attention it did in 1988.  That world was one in which the internet,  a plethora of 24 hour news and sport channels, streaming movies, X box, Playstation and Nintendo either did not exist or were available to only a few.  Although only twenty some years ago, it was a different era.  The beeps and buzzes of technology we take for granted today were a distant white noise.

Certainly high school football is not the focal point of small town Illinois.  At one time basketball was, entire communities emptied as citizens caravanned to neighboring towns for away games.  Criminals sometimes robbed deserted businesses while local police listened to the game on the radio.

But if the numbers paying attention to football have thinned due to the new digital day, you can bet other sports have suffered as well. When it comes to the transformation of American society wrought by the Bill Gates, Steven Jobs, and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, I am no old fuddy duddy lamenting days gone by (my kids might throw a flag at that statement, but I stand by it.) I enjoy touching base with people through Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, email and this blog.  Like anything else, it’s all good if used judiciously.

But it’s not the same as attending a live event where you meet and greet people face to face, shake hands, laugh out loud (for real not in text), smell popcorn, munch hot, greasy food and join the pep band as it leads the singing crowd in a rousing rendition of the school fight song.

Perhaps the key to football’s ongoing popularity is that it complements both past and current.  Attending a football game, or watching it with friends at home, is social networking in 3D.  It accommodates a web surfing attention span that thrives on constant and varied input.  Football lets folks visit, but within a fixed time frame.  The pregame meal a moment to discuss the teams and catch up with each other. The thirty seconds between downs allows for conversation, yet the ticking clock keeps thing moving. Each play provides a new window to digest in silence and provides grist for verbal instant messaging.  The post game is all about quick, flashy highlights, and no guilt good byes.  Everybody logging off and going home, game over.

Football fits in a world where technology simultaneously complicates and simplifies, connects yet isolates. It provides a gathering place where good food, warm smiles, back slapping, hand shaking, lively conversation, high fives and hugs carry the day.

For me, anyway, that’s a ritual worth honoring.

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Filed under August 2011, Family, Football, Friends, High School, Internet, Social Networking

Economic Theory and the “Cub Effect”

“Just win, baby.”

Al Davis of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders?

Yes, but not recently.

Jim Hendry, fired GM of the Chicago Cubs?

No, but close.

It was Cubs manager Mike Quade last week.  The Cubs were in the midst of winning twelve of fifteen and four straight series for the first time since September 9 – 21, 2008.  Not coincidentally, the stock market lost its gains for the year, gold prices spiked and calls of a second-dip recession surfaced.

What, you say? You an economist, Mike?

No, but I did minor in the field and spent a good part of my youth drinking beer and watching Cub games. This combination, along with years of less than thoughtful analysis, have yielded what I call the macroeconomic theory the “Cub Effect.”  (As a note, this should not be confused with the sociological theory, the “Ex-Cub Factor.”)

That makes me as credible as the myriad of talking heads populating TV.  Their economic judgment as feckless as the Cub GM who traded Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio.

Still skeptical?

In 1907 and 1908 the Cubs won the World Series.  In the winter of ’07 a financial panic brought the country to the brink of an economic meltdown.  The 1929 stock market crash? Cubs in World Series.  The Great Depression ?  Cubs made three appearances.

More recent history? Remember September, 2008 ?

Quade was the third base coach with future Hall of Fame manager Lou Piniella at the helm. Carlos Zambrano was a productive, if flaky, left-handed pitcher, not a troubled man in need of counseling.  Rich Harden, Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster pitched in, along with a bullpen which included Kerry Wood and Carlos Mamul.  In the field, Derek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Theriot and Alfonso Soriano enjoyed solid seasons.  They even picked up fading ex-Cardinal Jim Edmonds in hopes a guy from a team with a winning tradition might rub off.

It worked.  The Cubs won 97 regular season games and clinched their division on September 20th.  All was well in Cubbieland.

The financial world, not so much.  Five days earlier Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.  The next day the Federal Reserve approved an $85 billion loan to American International Group (AIG) to avoid a similar fate. The day the Cubs clinched, the Treasury Department pitched the notion of a troubled asset relief program (TARP) to Congress.  Five days later Washington Mutual Bank was shut down by the Office of Thrift Supervision.  Not long after the Treasury Department entered into a $312 billion loss sharing arrangement with Citigroup to absorb the troubled Wachovia Corporation.

The Cubs won five of their last nine, resting the regulars in preparation for the playoffs.  Lilly finished with 17 wins, Dempster 16,  and Zambrano 14.  Rich Harden was a solid fourth starter, while out of the bullpen Woods had 34 saves.  The Cubs were confident as they looked forward to the division series opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers on October 1st in Wrigley Field.

On September 29th the U.S. House of Representatives rejected TARP.  The stock market dipped like a knuckleball, losing seven percent of its value within hours.  People cashed out and fled to the safe havens of money markets and savings accounts.

The Cubs were poised to make a run to their first championship in over a century and, per the “Cub Effect” theory, the global financial system teetered.

But then the Cubs lost game one.  Dempster, pitching like a congressman up for reelection, low and in the dirt, walked seven.  He gave up four unearned runs capped by a grand slam by “little known” (to us self-absorbed Cub fans) James Loney.  Manny Ramirez homered late.  Dodgers 7, Cubs 2.

The next day, October 2nd, the Dodgers scored five in the second inning.  The Cubs infield, imitating the political leadership in DC, committed four errors,  one apiece by each player, the blame spread equally. Dodgers 10, Cubs 3, Zambrano taking the loss.

On October 4th in LA, the Dodgers eliminated the Cubs, 3-1.  The game was not without controversy, adding to the Cub’s litany of historic “what ifs?”  In a daring dash, the Dodgers Russell Martin took third base on a hit by Ramirez.  Replays showed Martin out.  But as fate would have it, the umpire saw it different.  Both runners scored minutes later when “little known” Loney stroked a double to right field.  Soriano capped the nightmarish season ending series for the Cubs by striking out.

The day before, Congress approved and President Bush signed into law the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act which established the $700 billion dollar TARP fund.  The stock market continued its tumble to 8,000, but TARP provided banks a life line and a year later the market was above the 10,000 mark and the financial world back from the precipice.

In January of 2009 the Rickett’s family bought the Cubs, but the team finished second in their division.  A worn out Piniella departed before the end of the season and Quade took charge.

The economy stabilized.

The situation today is not so dire as 2008.  The Cubs are 18 1/2 games out of first.  But the European banks are a worry, nobody is hiring and we are on shaky economic ground.

We cannot take any chances.  Mike Quade needs to knock off the “just win, baby” talk  and direct his players to take one for the world economic team.

Just lose, baby.  If anyone can do it, the Cubs can.

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Filed under August 2011, Baseball, Chicago Cubs, Economic Theory, Economics

An Irishman Named Rory

No, not McIlroy. Though his presence is welcome.  He’s a pleasure to watch on the course and a class act off.  What I really like about him, however, is he makes me think of my friend, Rory Hodgson.

Not physically.  Three McIlroy’s equal one Rory Hodgson, who stood six-foot tall and weighed four hundred pounds.

Big appetite matched by a big heart. If this was a fair world he would be with us today.  But Rory’s life was cut short by leukemia twenty-some years ago.

Yet Rory’s death is not what I remember.  It is his life. Or more precisely, how he lived.

Brown-haired with a dimpled round face, Rory garnered attention for more than sheer size.  He extended high-fives for anything from a well-struck golf shot to a cold drink of water.  True to his name, he roared through life, gobbling up everything that came his way, enjoying the big and small, the epic and trivial.

Rory was surprisingly light on his feet.  No stamina, mind you, but agile.  A good tennis player, golfer, smooth swinging slow-pitch softball batter, the guy moved well.  Think Chris Farley dancing with Patrick Swayze on Saturday Night Live.

On sunny days in the mid-1980’s we’d bolt from campus, a twelve pack of Old Milwaukee in an iced cooler, and drive to Hazy Hills Golf Course, a nine-hole pasture surrounded by corn and soybeans.  Played all day for ten bucks with a cart.  Rory shrugging massive shoulders and pummeling drives.  Me at 6-2 and 160, twisting and uncoiling like a rubber band, matching his strength with timing and club head speed.

“High-five, Louie,” he’d holler my nickname when we both striped the fairway.

One of many unlit “Swisher” cigars clenched between dimples, he displayed a soft touch on wedges and putts, beaming when he dropped a bomb, grimacing as if he’d lost the Masters when he choked on a short one.  Next tee, he’d down his beer and whale away, always ready for more.

Big appetite.

But Rory was more than a golf and drinking buddy.  He worked at the local newspaper, The Pantagraph, as a staff writer in the sports department and got me my first job as a writer, working as a stringer for high school football and basketball games.  Coaches called in and gave the scores and pertinent stats.  We wrote a paragraph or two and sent it to the editor. Midnight deadline looming, coaches yelling into the phone from their local bar, it taught me to write quick and concise. Particularly when the sports editor, Jim Barnhart, paced behind me shouting: “Need it now, Pemberton.  Later is just a blank space in the paper.”

At Rory’s urging Barnhart sent me to cover games.  At that time the reporter was responsible for typing the stats from the game into the aggregate “Score Card” section along with writing the story.  Rory taught me how to keep score in baseball and organize the stats for football and basketball games.  This allowed me to do the aggregate and gave me a game summary to refer to when I wrote the article. Rory did all this without my having to ask, just knew I needed help and offered.

Big heart.

Rory’s passion was baseball umpiring.  He worked the local high school and college games, longing to follow his idol Harry Wendelstedt into the big leagues.  The 1980’s were the era of the big ump.  Eric Gregg, Ken Kaiser, and John McSherry roamed the fields like blue-suited professional wrestlers, bar-bouncer sized men with booming voices and a flair for the dramatic.

Rory loved them.

I remember covering a high school game where Rory was the home plate umpire.  A skinny, right-handed kid crouched in the batter’s box with a 3-2 count, two outs and bases loaded.  A curve ball bent toward the plate, but looked outside.  The kid dropped his bat and stepped toward first.

“STEEEERIKE,” Rory shouted, waking sleeping dogs three blocks away.

He scooted left-to-right, left leg kicking up, hopping three times on his right, stretching his right arm up, then down, like he was planting a spear into the dirt.

“HEEEEYUUUUUUGH,” he bellowed.

The skinny batter stopped, his coach raced out onto the field.  Rory jerked off his mask, face red, eyes bright, but calm.  The coach yelled and stomped.  Rory jawed back and pointed to the bench. The coach threw up his hands and retreated.

Rory and I exchanged glances.  He winked and grinned, dimples popping.

High five, my friend.  High five.

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Filed under August 2011, Baseball, Friends, Golf, Leukemia

Fishing with Men

Twenty-odd years ago when I met four of my nephews in my wife’s Gulf Coast hometown of Port Isabel, Texas, the oldest, six at the time, walked up to me and said: “How tough are you, man?”

Then he punched me in the gut.

I grunted, but did not double over. My toughness test passed, he corralled his two younger brothers and cousin and ran into the backyard to play ball. They played ball a lot over the years.  Football and baseball their primary sports, hunting and fishing their loves.

They haven’t hit me again, which is good, since they could snap me like a dry stick, no longer little boys.  The younger brothers are in law school, the oldest works on a ranch while finishing college, the cousin a college grad applying for the border patrol. Like my son, Michael, soon to be 21, they are men.

But they still play.

So when Michael and I asked to go fishing on the bay the cousin and rancher were quick to accept.   Now these two are serious fisherman.  They go out almost every day, catching speckled trout and huge red fish with light tackle and 20 pound test lines.  So in the “interest of full disclosure” (the two law school students love that type of talk) I made clear that Michael and I were rank amateurs who have fished less than a half-dozen times with Zebco rods while standing on terra firma.

Not a problem they assured us.

Early the next morning we piled on a flat, white fishing boat and skimmed across the glass-smooth water to shallows in the middle of the bay.  The cousin cut the engine and let the boat drift.  They handed us shrimp for bait and showed us how to place it on the hook, popping the tip through the black dotted brain.  Then they demonstrated how to cast, where to press our right index finger on the line to hold it in place as we release the reel.  They positioned their bodies at an angle to the water, raised the rods over and behind them and rotating through, released the line at the top of the arc, like a tennis player hitting a serve.  The lines whistled as they soared high and long, the bobbers plopping into the water far from the boat.  The guys reeled in the slack while jerking the rods, bobbers bouncing as they floated towards the boat.

Watching this effortless display and having played tennis as a teenager, I thought, “no problem.”

Michael and I, bait in place, trigger fingers itching, reared back to fling our lines far into the ocean, eager to see and hear the satisfying splash of the bobber.  Instead, we felt the rods catch and our arms stop.

Yep, we tangled our lines in mid-cast.  Our hooks never hit the water.  Curly and Mo without the slapping.

The rancher separated them, while the cousin assured us it happened all the time (nice enough not to add “to people who have no idea what they’re doing.”) Humbled, Michael and I separated.  I moved to the rear, he stayed at the bow.

On our next casts we hit the water and our odds of catching fish jumped.  I can’t say we did not still have issues, releasing too late or early, but we improved and did not injure our instructors.

Early on I caught a small catfish and some perch.  But it wasn’t until I hooked a trout that I experienced a solid jerk on the line and worked the fish to the boat.  Michael and I lost more than we caught and released the rest.  We struggled with setting the hook, rushing the fish to the boat, but I noticed my nephews sometimes had the same problem.

Fact is, it’s difficult to hook and reel in a decent sized fish.  It takes skill and patience unappreciated by anyone who has never attempted the task. Fisherman like my nephews make it look easy with their repetitive metronome casts, practiced set of the hook, and steady reeling before netting the fish at the boat.  At any point, the fish can shake loose, never caught until it’s caught.

At high noon we retreated to shore, the heat rising, my nephews taking care of their uncle from the north.

It was a fun day.  I will go again.  And no, I’m not going to say “I’m hooked on fishing.”

But I will say it beats a punch to the gut.

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Filed under August 2011, Family, Fishing